Occupations in Victorian England

The statistics from this time period are based on tax records with a structure that consisted of several different levels and it was possible for an individual to be taxed in one or more during the same year. Based on these statistics, the middle class is defined as those earning over 150 annually. These individuals would most likely own their own home and be able to employ some domestic help.

The census taken in 1871 shows occupations1 in England broken down as a percent of the total population:

Manufacturing 31.6%
"Dealing" (Stores) 7.8%
Public/Professional Service 5.5%
Domestic Service 15.8%

Unfortunately, the manner in which the numbers were compiled, it is impossible to determine how many people earned what, the levels of the hierarchy and which classes or groups in the community were doing best out of the mid-Victorian boom in gross national income. What could be seen however, is that the rich were getting richer and the poor, poorer.

Middle Class Occupations

So how did the middle class earn a living?

Most worked at producing/distributing manufactured goods and raw materials which need arose as a result of the growth of industrialization during the period as well as one's desire for a higher standard of living. Most work in or close to the larger cities while the rural population continued to decline.

Charles Booth attempted to calculate the growth of middle class occupations from 1851 to 1871. The result is shown below.

Growth of "Middle Class" Occupations 1851-1871 in England/Wales
As % of Total Population

  1851   1861   1871
  (000)   %   (000)   %   (000)   %
Law 32   0.4   34   0.4   39   0.4
Medicine 60   0.7   63   0.7   73   0.8
Education 95   1.0   116   1.2   135   1.3
Religion 31   0.4   39   0.4   44   0.4
Art and Amusement 25   0.3   29   0.3   47   0.4
Literature and Science 2       3       7    
Commerce: Clerks, accountants,
45   0.5   68   0.7   119   1.1
Public Administration 52   0.6   64   0.7   73   0.7
Trade/Wholesale/Retail 547   6.5   674   7.1   838   7.8

The occupational classifications above are extremely broad as due to the way in which the statistics were compiled it was impossible to distinguish from a Bond Street furrier or a street vendor.

Another ambiguity was in the determination of the number of domestics. As mentioned previously, those earning over 150 were able to afford some domestic help. Unfortunately there was no way of determining the number each of these households employed. The best estimates were as follows:

Domestic Service in England and Wales 1851 - 1871

  1851   1861   % Change   1871   % Change
General Servants 575,162   644,271   +12.0   780,040   +21.1
Housekeepers 46,648   66,406   +42.4   140,836   +112.1
Cooks 44,009   77,822   +76.8   93,067   +19.6
Housemaids 49,885   102,462   +105.9   110,505   +7.8
Nursery maids 35,937   67,785   +88.6   74,491   +11.4
Laundry maids  ---   4,040    ---   4,538   +12.3
Total 751,641   962,786   +28.1   1,204,477   +29.3
Indoor General 74,323   62,076   -16.5   68,369   +10.1
Grooms 15,257   21,396   +40.2   21,202   -0.9
Coachmen 7,030   11,897   +69.2   16,174   +36.0
Total 96,610   95,369   -2.3   105,745   +10.9

Salaries for the middle class ranged anywhere from 125 to 1000 annually. Junior clerks and apprentices wages ranged from 20 - 25 year and progressed upward to approximately 70 - 80. At best, they fared just slightly better than a skilled craftsman. The spread between the "upper class" and the "upper middle class" was broad with the upper class coming in at approximately 5000 annually as compared to the lower middle class at approximately 90.

Lower Class Incomes

In the lower class family, both the husband and wife worked and if old enough, so did the children. It was the only way they could survive. And more often than not, they worked 14-16 hour days. Wages remained somewhat stagnant in the 1850s-1860s, however, towards the end of the century began to rise slowly. The one constant, however, is that the gap between skilled labor and unskilled remained relatively unchanged.

The table2 below provides an example of a variety of occupational groups, the average weekly wage and the approximate number of men employed in each job classification for the year 1867.

Avg Weekly



  Avg Weekly



35s   Scientific, Surgical and
Optical Instrument Makers
3,150   25s   Copper, Brass,
Tin, Zinc and
    Scale Makers 1,150       Lead Workers    
    Leather Case Makers 2,200            
    Watch Makers 15,400   21-23s   Railway Workmen   64,500
    Jewelry Makers 11,000       Postmen   11,500
    Engine Drivers 9,300       Coachmen, Cabmen,
    Building trades 387,600       Miners   233,500
              Chemical Workers   15,000
28-30s   Printers, Binders, etc. 28,350       Fabric Workers   238,000
    Glass Workers
Arms and Tool
      Sugar Refiners
    Makers         Coal Heavers   11,600
    Cabinet Makers, 39,000       Chimney Sweeps   4,300
    Upholsterers         Servants   98,600
    Musical Instrument 2,200       Boot and Shoemakers   157,000
    Makers         Brush Makers   7,000
    Shipbuilding Trades 82,900       Tailors   83,000
    Bakers and Butchers 70,000            
          15-20s   Sailors, Coastguard,
25s   Seamen 100,000       Civil Service Messengers   2,100
    Warehousemen 15,200       Horsekeepers, Drovers,
    Watermen, Bargemen, etc. 29,300            
    Coach and Harness Makers 30,000   14s   Farm Laborers   880,000
    Hairdressers 8,000       General Laborers   258,000
    Dockyard Workers 12,470       Road Laborers   10,500
    Gas Workers 8,000            
    Tanners, Curriers, Skinners 19,200   12s   Soldiers   56,000
    Soap and Tallow Workers 3,260       Silk Workers   14,500
    Rope Makers 11,300            
    Blacksmiths, Whitesmiths, Hardware
    Hosiery Workers 20,000            
    Lace Makers 6,700            
    Paper Workers 10,000            
    Straw, Rush, Bark and Cane Workers 11,000            
    Oilmen, Polishers, Japanners 8,500            

Working Hours and Conditions

As the period went on, Parliament began showing increasing concern for the health, morals and literary of its workforce but was cautious in its approach when it came to enforcing minimum standards as well as setting maximum work hours.

The first industry to lead the movement for less hours was the textile industry whose 20 year campaign succeeded in getting weekly hours reduced to 60 in 1850 with Parliament reducing it to 56-1/2 (10 hour workdays exclusive of meals and breaks Mondays - Fridays and 6 hours on Saturday) in 1874. The half-hours on Saturday was originally granted to the textile industry alone, however, it was later extended to all.

Relief was first offered to office workers with the passage of the Bank Holiday Acts of 1871 and 1875 which declared the following days as holidays: Boxing Day, Easter Monday, Whitmonday and the first Monday in August. This also was later extended to include all however this was not always the case. The smaller laundries and workshops continued to employ women working all hours and under deplorable conditions. These new regulations also did little for domestics as this occupation was virtually impossible to control.

Yet the passage of laws relative to health did little for the workers but were passed for the purpose of protecting those who lived around the factories. If it provided any help at all, child workers were the ones who benefited. The increased use of machinery and the long hours still contributed to injury and death and the laws provided little protection in these cases.

Significant changes in the area of health and safety, as well as hours, did not take place until the 1900s.

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1. Clapham, Economic History of Modern Britain "Free Trade and Steel 1850 - 1886".
2. Best, Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1875.

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